Make SEL a Habit in Your Classroom


Make SEL a Habit in Your Classroom

When I started my first teaching job, I was thrown into the deep end. I went immediately into a demanding, intense setting in which I taught children with extreme behaviors who had been diagnosed with emotional disabilities and conduct disorders. 

It was an amazing experience and the start of an incredibly rewarding career that has included teaching students with special needs and training the educators who work with them.

Currently, I am a social and emotional learning (SEL) consultant at a company that provides SEL assessments, resources and support to schools. I have a deep appreciation of the importance of SEL skills in helping students reach their full potential. Unfortunately, in my work over the years I’ve seen wide disparities — and many bad habits — in how schools approach SEL instruction.

SEL Instruction – The Good and the Bad

I’ve had amazing experiences in some schools towards SEL. I’ve had teachers working in teams and administrators who are coaches and cheerleaders in school wide efforts to address the whole child. However, I’ve also had some not-so-great experiences. In some schools I experienced negative attitudes toward SEL — with it being viewed as just one more thing they have to teach.

Research backs the importance of teaching SEL in school, and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) supports this. It’s clear that the way we view SEL needs to change. We must start viewing SEL as a basic component of a well-rounded education. If our goal as educators is to get kids ready for college and careers, then addressing their social-emotional development is as important as teaching academics.

Fixing Old Habits

Here are some of the adverse habits I’ve seen when it comes to SEL, and ways schools can break them.

  • Habit #1: Using labels of “good” or “bad” when it comes to students or their behavior.
    |Instead, talk about “positive” or “negative” choices. Teach students about options and the impact of choosing one option over another. Teach them how to make effective choices that will help them be successful.
  • Habit #2: Saying “It’s not my problem.”
    Rather than saying “these children are coming in this way, and I can’t do anything about it,” look for opportunities to help them. We have these students for eight hours a day. We can help them change their viewpoints, improve their attitudes and help them enjoy school and get something out of it.
  • Habit #3: Refusing to add something new to our day.
    Teachers have a lot on their plates. I get it. However, if they make it a habit to integrate SEL instruction into their days, it can truly make everything easier. I’ve worked in schools where SEL instruction is a constant part of the environment. Students as young as kindergarten practiced goal-setting — such as how many sight words they wanted to learn that week and then planned strategies to get there. They developed problem-solving skills that bled over to academics. We noticed they weren’t getting as frustrated and had an “I’m not giving up” approach. It made a significant difference in their grades.
  • Habit #4: Focusing on weaknesses, rather than strengths.
    Fixing this habit is as easy as changing your approach. Instead of saying “Why can’t you do this?” say “You can do this.” Students internalize what they hear in the classroom. They get stuck on what other people tell them they’re capable of. If we can help them see themselves as learners and see their strengths, they’ll keep moving forward and setting goals and having successes.

Social and emotional skills are critical to student success. By recognizing and fixing ineffective habits and developing a comprehensive, data-driven approach to SEL instruction, we can truly make a difference in students’ lives.

Lisa-Anne Williams is a former teacher who currently works as a social and emotional learning consultant at Aperture Education.

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